Sunday, August 17, 2008

Props to the Spirit of Freedom on their customer service

Recently, I wrote about my snorkeling experience on the Great Barrier Reef, specifically on board the Spirit of Freedom dive boat. I mentioned how my experience might have been better, and I finally decided to go ahead and send an email to the company in that regard. I suspect they don't get many snorkelers-most people who sign up to live aboard a dive boat on the GBR are going to be diving, after all, so I imagine they don't focus a whole lot on what to do with snorkelers other than make sure they make it back on the boat. While that's a GREAT start, I think there are some easy ways that they could make a single snorkeler feel a little more comfortable. Anyway, I just wanted to say that within 24 hours I received not one response but TWO acknowledging my email and thanking me for my suggestion. So, way to go, Spirit of Freedom! I don't know what you'll actually do with my suggestion, but thanks for at least making me feel like you care.

Maybe a reader could book a trip with them and report back to me. I'm sure somebody could find a legitimate way to write this off in the name of research!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

What I'm Reading Now-August 15th edition

I wanted to break this up and do a separate post from my August 14th post for two reasons.

1) These are long-ass posts when I do them all together.
2) I felt like the subject matter of the previous reviews should have it's own post.

So, continuing on, here's more on my latest reads:

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones -I picked up this book because Michael over at Books on the Nightstand raved about it in a podcast and Ann followed up with a positive review as well; it's a book I would have probably been interested in but never actually read otherwise. I bought it in the airport at Sydney, not realizing that the author is a native of New Zealand and the book was published in Australia, so that was a nice surprise to find that I had a book that was somewhat relevant to my travels.

To summarize quickly (I know I'm not good at this, but I'll try!), it's about a group of island children who are introduced to Charles Dickens' Great Expectations by their new teacher who reads the book aloud to them in class each day, bringing to life a whole new world, completely unlike anything any of them have ever experienced. They live somewhere in the South Pacific, close to Australia from what I could gather, perhaps New Zealand, but I don't think a location was ever specified. There is a civil war of sorts going on (perhaps if I were up on my world history I would have been able to figure out where this takes place) and the book takes a rather dark turn that I hadn't expected. The narrator is Matilda, one of the students, and she is enthralled, fascinated by Great Expectations, particularly it's main character, Pip. As Pip becomes more real to her than her culture's beloved ancestors, more real than God Himself, Matilda's mother becomes increasingly uncomfortable with Mr. Watts, the new teacher, and his chosen material which leads to unfortunate circumstances colliding to create a misunderstanding between the islanders and enemy soldiers, and things go downhill from there. The book is basically broken up into two parts, Matilda's life on the island before things go bad and Matilda's grown-up years, off-island, after.

I have very mixed feelings about this book. I wanted to love it since it had received such rave reviews, but, honestly, I kept forgetting that I was reading it. It wasn't that it was bad, it just wasn't anything I was ever excited about getting back to. I would be looking around the house, going, "I need a new book to read," and then I would see this book and go, "Oh yeah, I'm already reading a book." At the same time, I think it is worth reading, and I feel like there are a lot of things right below the surface of this one that I am just missing, like if I just sat down and really thought about it for an hour or so I could get all my thoughts together and come up with a great appreciation for its profound nature. Matilda is who she is in large part because of Mr. Watts, her teacher, and Mr. Watts is a complex character whose story takes an unexpected twist. It's hard to say too much about this without giving things away. I'd say go ahead and give it a read. It's an easy read, and I can see how it has the potential to be a book that you would really love. I may have to go back and re-read the second half again.
Bonus! Mr. Watts asks the adults of the village to come to class to share their knowledge. They can talk about anything they want, whatever they know about, and at one point Matilda's mother talks about the digging habits of beach crabs. She imparts this wisdom:

"'Wind and rain are on the way if a crab digs straight down and blocks the hole with sand leaving marks like sunrays. We can expect strong winds but no rain if a crab leaves behind a pile of sand but does not cover the hole.

'If the crab blocks the hole but does not scrape the mound flat there will be rain but no wind. When the crab leaves the sand piled up and the hole unblocked the weather will be fine. Never trust a white who says, "According to the radio rain is on the way." Trust crabs first and above all others.'" I think that's pretty sage advice. Now I will have to do some reconnaissance work and see if Hawaii crabs follow the same rules. Don't hold your breath waiting for the results though.

So, for the readers who found my blog by searching for "why do hawaii beach crabs dig holes" and "sideway sand shuffle crabs" perhaps this would be a good book for you to read! Or, perhaps not since I just told you all that it says about crabs.

**Updated 6/2/09 to include
Other reviews (many much more well-researched than mine):
Marg at Reading Adventures
Heather J. at Age 30+... A Lifetime of Books

Getting Started in Value Investing by Charles Mizrahi-Finally! I have been trying to read this book since...well, let's see, it was due back to the library on July 29th when my renewal expired...yeah, I'm THAT person, ok?? I'm not proud of it, but the library gets their money from me, so it's all good in the end. (Also, I had to share it with the cat, and he's a slow reader-all that math wears him out.) I'm sure that Mr. Mizrahi would say that paying $7.50 (my library's maximum late fee for an overdue book) for a library book is not a good example of value investing, but I'm not claiming to be his star pupil here. I almost didn't read this book (on several occasions) but I'm really glad that I did. I think it offers a lot of good advice, it breaks down a lot of the confusion about all those numbers you see on financial statements, and it does it all in layman's terms.
Mizrahi tells you how to look at a company and decide if it is a good investment, meaning if you put money into it, will it be worth it in the long haul. He is not talking about playing the market, he's talking about investing Warren Buffet-style and watching your investment grow over the years. There are a lot of common sense things that sort of correlate with how I've been choosing companies to invest in thus far, which made me feel like I'm not a complete moron and I do have a good general sense of what I'm doing...sort of.
I like to invest in companies that I like, companies that I would want to own, which is basically what you are doing when you buy stock in a company. Yeah, I could make lots of money in big oil or pharmaceuticals, but I'd feel icky about owning them. Not that there aren't some great aspects about both, but overall, it's just not my bag. Also, I want to be able to understand what a company does-Starbucks sells coffee, Home Depot sells building materials, Bank of America lends money, etc. I have a basic understanding of how they make their money, and that's another thing that the author and Mr. Buffet both advocate. If you can't figure out what they do or how they earn their money, don't invest in them!

Another piece of advice that Mizrahi gives is buy companies that are doing well and have a history of doing well. If they are not currently doing well, see if you can figure out why-did they have some huge capital expense this year, like equipment upgrades, that is draining all their cash but should result in better figures next year, or are they on their way out of business because they can't compete in their market? I think now is a tricky time to be trying to figure this out since virtually everyone is experiencing lower revenues in the current economy, so current figures aren't necessarily going to be representative of historical figures, but there should be some standout companies that are able to weather even the current economic storm, and those are the ones that you invest in!

Where I perhaps haven't been doing the best job, and where a lot of people get hung up, is picking stocks that are not overvalued. The author lays out a detailed process for figuring out what you should pay for a stock and explains it all very clearly, but I'm still a little confused about this part. I made an Excel spreadsheet and typed in all the numbers they gave in the example in the book, and I got my answer to match their answer, so I knew all of my formulas were right, but I'm just not convinced that I'm plugging in the right numbers, and that was the only problem I had with this book. For most of the examples he gives, Mizrahi has corresponding financial statements or bits of financial statements so you can see where he is pulling numbers from, but for this part, he just tells you what the numbers are for the given company, and I'm not sure that I'm not calling something by one name when on a financial statement it goes by another name. Google and Reuters team up nicely to provide financial information about companies (as an example, go to Google Finance, type in GOOG and hit "Get quotes." Now you can see Google's stock info. If you scroll down you will see "Financials" and "Key Stats and Ratios." Click on the "More ratios from Reuters" link and you get this. Between these two sources, you should be able to find all the numbers you need to come up with a valuation for a stock, but don't do dumb things like I did and enter the "EPS (TTM) vs TTM 1 Yr. Ago" figure (29.33) in your spreadsheet where you should be entering the EPS (15.22) or it will be wonky beyond belief. See, if you're scratching your head going, "What the hell does all THAT mean?" then you should read this book. By the time you get done, you will actually know!) Where was I? Oh yeah, Google and Reuters team nicely, but every once in a while you run across a company for which this information is not available (I think this tends to be for foreign entities), so then you have to go find the company's annual report and look at their financial statements on your own. While the basic layout and accounting principles should be the same, each one is still unique in its own way, and that's where I run into problems, especially when dealing with foreign terminology. Does this count as revenue? Should I count that as a capital expense? Do I need to know gross revenue, operational revenue or net revenue for this calculation? So, I don't know. There is still a lot for me to learn, but I feel like I learned A LOT from this book, and I now have a good basis to build on. Speaking of investing, I might actually invest in this book since I think it would be one that I would refer back to frequently, and I think the advice will remain pretty timeless.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Why I'm telling you to go read someone else's blog

Heather J. over at Age 30-A Year of Books posted a review about Genuine Men: Journeys in Stories and Stills. I haven't read the book myself, but from what I can gather, it celebrates positive male role models, and isn't that something worth celebrating these days? Heather has asked people to comment with stories about their Genuine Men, and so far it's a great read. So, grab your box of Kleenex and head on over there to read about some Genuine Men and nominate one of your own. Feel free to leave a comment here as well!

So, as if this isn't great all by itself, Heather is giving away a copy of Genuine Men: Journeys in Stories and Stills to one of her readers after September 2nd, so get on over there and acknowledge one of the great men in your life!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

What I'm Reading Now-August 14 edition

Night (Oprah's Book Club)by Elie Wiesel-This is a memoir of a holocaust survivor, and what can you say? Whether it was a good book or not is irrelevant; I think it should be read for it's truth. It's not trying to entertain, it's not trying to tell a clever tale; it's trying to tell one man's truth of what he went through in his journey from one Nazi death camp to another and it's beautiful and terrible and should be acknowledged. For what it's worth, I did enjoy it, if enjoy is, indeed, the right word.

I am really drawn to books from this era and, particularly, this subject. I'm not sure why; I guess I just find it fascinating, maybe because it's one of the most human moments in history. It's a terrible human moment, but it's also one of the most triumphant if you look at it from a survivor's perspective. The things that they went through are unimaginable to most of us, and yet they made it through somehow, whether it was through faith, skill, support of friends and family or just pure luck they made it through and lived to tell about it, tell it to all the world so that it would not be forgotten or ignored, which was largely Mr. Weisel's motivation.

The one thing that struck me about this book was the lack of emotion with which the author portrayed events like being reunited with his father after a selection day during which camp officials go through and select who is fit to live and who should die. At first I was surprised by this; I expected tearful reunions and separations fraught with worry and hysteria, extreme fear coupled with knee-buckling relief but none of that was present. Everything was very factual and sparse and to-the-point, and I think that's probably a reflection of the hopelessness and desperation and sheer exhaustion that was brought on by their circumstances. At some point, celebration is pointless because you know the victory can be taken from you at any time. At some point fear is useless because it uses up too much valuable energy. It's not that those emotions weren't experienced, but I think the expression of them became pointless if not simply impossible. This reminded me a lot of another book that I read a while back called When the Emperor Was Divineby Julie Otsuka, which told the story of a Japanese American mother and her children who were sent to an internment camp in Utah during WWII. It was simple and stark and deeply emotional without ever portraying that emotion. Emotion is pointless. What happened happened, and what you or I or the author or the characters involved (real or fictional) felt about it doesn't change a thing. It still happened.

Other bloggers who have reviewed Night:

Interestingly, this brings me around to what I like about the book that I am currently reading, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novelby David Wroblewski, and I will cover that in a separate post when I get done reading it. Also, I am reading it on my Kindle, which I think I want to cover in a separate post. For right now though, I will say that I really like the writing. There have been several scenes which have blindsided me emotionally, and I think it's due to the same style of writing mentioned above. Everything is very sparse and simple and laid out as it is, no frills, no explanation of emotions, just the acts of emotion, like a father resting his forehead against the side of the coffin that he has just spent all night building for his child. You're reading along and you're doing fine, you're doing fine, and then BAM! You're crying and you have to take a break to pull it together. In fact, I'll bet you're doing it right now, aren't you? I'm telling you, that father with the coffin thing gets to you.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Perfect Burning Man Accessory

Ok, so I know it's cutting it close to bring this up now, but the lovely Julie, over at , makes these cool little wire man pendants, and every time I see them they remind me of Burning Man. Since the 2008 Burning Man season is about to commence, I thought I would mention this. This might be a cool thing to wear as you journey around the desert checking out works of art, communing with other Burning Man attendees. If you aren't an artist yourself, but want to participate in the artistic contribution, maybe you could buy a whole bunch of these and give them to people you meet as you make friends and build memories. (I understand things work on a barter system out there, so perhaps you could get a beer or some sunscreen or something in return.) If you are going with a group, you could get them as sort of a group memento to remind you all of this amazing experience. I mean, photos are great, but you don't want to have to carry those around with you all the time; and let's face it, you are probably going to be drunk (or something) in a lot of those photos-you definitely don't want to carry THOSE around with you everywhere.

You can wear jewelry everyday, and every time you look at it, it will remind you of all the fun you had and you can smile. At work and having a bad day? Look at your little wire man and remember your crazy trip to Burning Man. Smile wistfully and think twice about spitting in your customer's food. Stuck in traffic? Contemplate all the little coils that make up the little wire man and how representative that is of all the different twists and turns in life and how all those twists and turns resulted in all those people finding their way to Burning Man for one crazy summer in the desert. Smile and shake your head at the wonder that is life and think twice about ramming that jackass in the Hummer who just cut you off. In the hospital, recovering from some drunken debauchery at Burning Man? Press the button on that morphine drip and pass a few hours being mesmerized by all the little coils. Smile drunkenly. See? Not only is it a cool piece of jewelry, but it helps promote world peace!

Alternatively, I think this would also make a good gift for somebody you know who has attended Burning Man and found it to be a life-altering experience (or even just an extremely awesome time). It would also be a good gift for yourself if you just want a good conversation starter-"Hey, that's a cool little man! Where'd you get him?" (But it would be cooler if you had a good story to go along with it! Hmmm...maybe you could talk Julie into making little swimming men or little weight lifting men or something else that says something about who you are. It's sort of like having a tattoo, but you can take it off at the end of the day!)

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Some final thoughts on Australia

These are just random bits that I couldn't really fit in anywhere else, but I still wanted to mention them, and then I'll move on.

-What they call "lemonade" we call "Sprite." If you want a lemonade, you have to order a lemon crush.

-To all the young men of Australia: Pull up your pants. You look like morons. Seriously.

-To all the young women of Australia: If you are dating these morons, you deserve a slap upside the head. Stop perpetuating the moron...ity...ness. Whatever. They look like morons. Stop encourging it. They will never amount to anything because they are going to spend so much time worrying about keeping their pants from falling down they won't be able to give their full attention to anything else, including you.

-Australia has weird crows. They make this bizarre sound, kind of like a baby, a baby that is trying to lure you into the tall grass where you will be set upon by a pack of hyenas. If I can figure out how to get something up on YouTube, I will put up my video of the weird crow call. If I can't, then just use your imaginations.

Yay me!

-There is A LOT of graffiti in Australia, at least in the parts that we visited. I noticed this especially in New Castle and on the train ride between New Castle and Sydney. The graffiti monsters are rampant over there! Catherine, over at She Never Shuts Up, pretty much sums up everything I feel about graffiti, so I'll let you check out her musings on it here.

-In the same post, Catherine also touches on words that are fun to say, which brings me to my next point. Australia has a lot of place names that are just fun to say. Woolloomooloo, Wagga Wagga, Ulladulla, Wombat. Okay, the last one isn't a place name, but it's still fun to say! Also, Wagga Wagga always made me think of Fozzie Bear ("Wokka wokka!") This was not the only Muppets connection that I found in Australia; there was also a store in Sydney that we kept walking past named Wagamama, which I had never heard of, but I thought it was fun to say. (Apparently, I am out of the cool loop. Foxie, over at Dreaming of Ferraris was blogging about her desire to hit up a Wagamama on her next visit to London AT VIRTUALLY THE SAME TIME THAT WE WERE IN SYDNEY. How wierd is that??? Cue Twilight Zone music.) So, everyday, we'd walk past it and after about 1/2 a block my husband would stop, look at me, and patiently wait for me to say, "WAGAMAMA!" and then snicker like Ernie (another Muppet!)for the rest of the block. Once it was out of my system I was fine. Until the next time we walked past. I don't know what the actual pronounciation is supposed to be, but in my head (and whenever I shouted it out on the street) it sounded like the Muppet performance of "Mahna Mahna," the YouTube version of which I cannot embed, so you'll have to go here to check it out. Just remember to replace "Mahna Mahna" with "WAGAMAMA," and you'll have a good idea of what my husband was dealing with on the streets of Sydney.

-There is a general straight-forwardness that I like about the Aussie people that we, in America, are seriously lacking. At the Wildlife World or the Aquarium, I can't remember which, there is a crocodile display. You can go upstairs and look down into the display, and at the top there is a sign that reads, "If the fall doesn't kill you, the crocodile will." That's it. There's no waiver you have to sign saying how you have been fully warned of the dangers of hanging over into the crocodile pit due to the possibility of falling in and the bodily harm that might ensue should you find yourself injured at the bottom of a crocodile pit. You don't have to release the company; their children; their heirs; their successors, assignees, trustees, agents or any other thrid party that might in any way shape or form be affiliated with them ever in case of any injury resulting from said inappropriate placement of one's body in relation to said crocodile whether or not said crocodile, his heirs, replacements or agents was negligent in the method of his attack on your intruding body, which negligence shall be defined as but not limited to any failure to hiss, posture, snap his jaws or in any other way warn of a possible pending attack and shall NOT include the crocodile's bellowing in a manner likely to persuade the invading person that he is indeed an alligator, not a crocodile, thereby confusing said person about what animal will actually be attacking his dumb ass.

Where was I? Oh yeah, Aussie's are a lot more straight forward about stuff. I like that.

-Since we were there in winter, it was pretty chilly outside everywhere we went. There is also a lot of outdoor seating, which, when combined with the chillyness of winter, can make for very uncomfortable dining. The Aussies, however, have embraced the heat lamp. Almost every establishment that we passed that had outdoor seating also had at least one heat lamp throwing off a welcoming warmth to passersby. I don't know why I haven't seen more of this in America. Maybe the places I've always lived have just gotten too cold in the winter to bother. After all, when it's 40 below, a heat lamp on the sidewalk just isn't going to cut it.

-The local news is always worth checking out. While in Newcastle I read about Ely, the koala who had gotten his head stuck in the grille of a speeding car that had mowed him down while traveling at a high speed. Luckily, Ely was not fatally injured and is recovering at the Australia Zoo. Unfortunately, Ely was also diagnosed with chlamydia, which is a real downer, seeing as how it is koala mating season. Ely, you might want to pay a little more attention when you finally get back out there, both on the road and off.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

"Life's too short to read bad books"

This advice was sagely given to me a few years ago by my sister-in-law. I have a hard time not finishing a book, even if it's not great. Being the eternal optimist (or something) I always think it'll get better; surely they wouldn't have gone through all the trouble of writing, publishing and selling this book if this is as good as it gets! Well, it's been hard, but I've been trying to take my SIL's advice and move on if a book isn't good. It just makes me feel like such a quitter though!

Anyway, all of that is to say that I have removed the following books from my What I'm Reading Now sidebar, so if you were waiting with bated breath for a review...well, obviously you have more patience than I do. Congratulations! And sorry if the book you were interested in disappeared without a review. Partial reviews of Wilderness Tips and Latticework can be found here and here, respectively

Wilderness Tipsby Margaret Atwood-I just didn't care. This is a collection of short stories, and while I wouldn't say any of them were bad, I just wasn't interested in reading any more.

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the Worldby Michael Pollan-I had to return this to the library before I ever got started on it. I imagine this will make it's way back someday, as I still have every intention of reading it, but for now it just isn't meant to be.

The Road (Oprah's Book Club)by Cormac McCarthy-Never got around to this one either. I've checked it out several times, and despite rave reviews from friends, I just can't quite force myself to sit down and start reading this.

Latticework: The New Investingby Robert G. Hagstrom-Library time was up, and I feel like I got all that I was going to get out of this book. I like the general idea behind it, that investing encompases more than just dollars and cents, that you have to step back and see the big picture in life to see how to apply lessons from different parts of life to various other parts of life, that everything is connected.

So, I guess none of these necessarily falls under the "bad book" category, some just weren't good enough to keep me interested.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Diving (okay, snorkeling) The Great Barrier Reef!

This is a hard post for me to write because I have very mixed feelings about it. I wanted it to be all exciting and fabulous and wonderful and amazing, but my experience wasn't. My experience was...okay, but I know that that is largely due to me and my fear of death in the water and really not the fault of the company or crew at, I'll give you my impressions, and we'll go from there.

The ship that we were on was the Spirit of Freedom. We were going to spend 3 days/3 nights aboard the vessel, on the 3 Day Cod Hole and Ribbon Reef Itinerary. I should probably mention here that I am not very comfortable in the water, I get sea sick, and I've never over-nighted on a ship before. Also, bear in mind that July is the dead of winter in Australia. My husband is the avid diver, and this was the part of the trip that he couldn't wait for. I was sort of dreading it. As much as I've seen footage of the Great Barrier Reef, and as beautiful as it always is, and as much as I wanted to be able to say, "Why, yes, I HAVE snorkeled on the Great Barrier Reef!" I was worried about how I was going to do on this trip. I really WANTED to have fun, but, well, see above.

The basic itinerary was this:

Day One: Embark PM in Cairns, orientation etc., 1 dive
Day Two: 5 dives
Day Three: 5 dives
Day Four: Disembark AM at Lizard Island

Day One: For the first dive, I decided to go ahead and get in the water despite the fact that it was cold and nasty out. After all, this was my first opportunity to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef, and I didn't want to be the only weenie not getting into the water. I can't tell you a single thing about this dive other than who my snorkel buddy was and that it was cold. I know that's terrible, but I can't really distinguish one dive from the next as far as what I saw, what kind of visibility there was, etc. I'm sure it was beautiful and that I saw a lot of cool fish and some amazing coral. Other than that, I can't tell you a thing. Since this was sort of a let's-all-get-acclimated-to-the-water-and-our-gear dive, I don't feel too bad about this. What I can tell you is that by the time I got back on the boat, I could hardly stand up. I would like to say that this was all due to the shockingly cold water (74 degrees! I'm from Hawaii, people! That's cold!) and the amazingly strong current and the choppy water, and I definitely think that was part of it; but I think a lot of it was probably also due to my amazing lack of physical fitness. Seriously. I almost couldn't climb the stairs to get from the dive platform up onto the deck area. Anyway, one dive down, and I'm still alive, so I'm happy. Did I mention I'm not terribly comfortable in the water?

Day Two: I knew going into this that there was no way I was going to participate in all 11 dives. For one thing, the first dive of the day was scheduled for around 7:00AM. If it had been sunny and beautiful out, I might have considered crawling out of bed for this, but it was rainy and cold. Screw that. Besides, they were going to be diving the same location later in the day. Later in the day it was still cold and windy and the sun was nowhere to be seen...which is how it would be for the remainder of the trip. I had envisioned snorkeling around, coming back on board, lying on the sun deck for a while and warming up, then getting back into the water for another snorkel. Yeah, right. We were all freezing our asses off for the entire trip despite the 5 mm wet suits provided by the ship. Anyway, I snorkeled for 2 out of the 5 dives that day saw some cool stuff and the coral is really cool (we don't have soft corals like that here in Hawaii) and it was cold. LOL. No, okay, I actually have some details from this day. The first dive that I went on was supposed to be the one where they do the cod feeding, which I was really looking forward to. Even though I wouldn't be able to participate (because I am a lame snorkeler and not a cool diver) I was hoping I could hang out and watch all the action from above. As it turned out, since nobody knew that I was snorkeling, there was a last-minute scramble to find me a snorkel buddy, so I didn't get in the water until probably 10-15 minutes after everybody else, so I missed the cod feeding. Also, the current was really strong. We were kicking for everything we were worth to just stay in the same place. We finally went in exhausted after probably 20 minutes or so. Later in the day I went on another snorkel, and this time I had 2 snorkel buddies. They had the ship's cameras so that they could take pictures of me and also of the fish. Also, I have been taking Kwell to avoid sea sickness, and it seems to be working. Yay me! I haven't thrown up AND I'm still alive!

Day 3: Let me tell you about Day 3. Since this is our last day, I make one last hurrah and decide to go out even though the water is choppy as hell. Again, there's a fairly strong current, not like it was the day before, but enough that you can't just hang out in one place and check things out, which is what I like to do. Also, have I mentioned that I'm not terribly comfortable in the water? Because the water was so choppy, I was taking on a lot of water through my snorkel. "A lot of water" is fairly subjective. What I consider "a lot of water" probably wouldn't faze most people, but I was having to clear my snorkel every 2 or 3 breaths, and this takes up a lot of energy. When you can only breathe in short choppy breaths (you can't exhale completely because if your next breath is all water, you have no way to blow it back out) and every other breath is a powerful exhale (to remove the water from your snorkel and ensure that you can take in another breath that isn't all water) and you're fighting the current to try to stay in place and you're convinced you're going to die, it's exhausting. Also, when I start getting overwhelmed in the water, I like to be able to pop my head up out of the water, get all the water out of my snorkel, and then stick my head back in the water when I've relaxed a little bit. When you are directly above the reef you can't do this. Well, you can, but then you're the jackass who's stading on top of the reef doing damage that if not irreparable will take years and years to repair. Now, add to this the fact that my snorkel buddy has no idea that all this is going on in my head and he is literally dragging me through the water via our shared flotation device to try to get me over the reef so that we can check it out. This is nice of him, and I'm sure he's wishing that I would do my fair share of the work and kick a little bit, but what he doesn't realize is that as he's dragging me through the water I'm taking on more and more water and now I can't "stand up" in the water because I'm right over the reef. So, in short, I spent about equal amounts of time looking at and admiring cool stuff as I did worrying about how not to die. After we floated back out to the edge of the reef and I could tell my snorkel buddy was preparing to drag me back out over the reef, I finally stood up and told him that I was ready to go back in. I'm sure this was frustrating for him-all that donning of the wetsuit and whatnot for probably 20 minutes worth of snorkeling-but I was nearing my breaking point.

I went back to our cabin, ultimately frustrated with myself, and showered and tried not to cry, but I couldn't help it. Then I figured if I was going to cry, I should go ahead and do it and try to pull myself together by the time my husband came back in from his dive. I didn't want to be a downer if he was having a good time (which he was because he was in the water, and it's physically impossible for him not to be having fun if he's in the water.) So, I cried and pulled myself somewhat back together and then my husband came in to shower and took one look at me and said, "Are you ok?" Ladies, you know that about the worst thing anyone can say to you when you are on the edge and trying to keep your shit together is, "Are you ok?," or, worse yet, "How are you doing?"

"Are you ok?" Eyes filling up with tears. "What's wrong? What happened? Did Snorkel Buddy do something?" What happened, in a nutshell, is that I have been trying, really trying, to have fun on the Great Barrier Reef, but I feel like I'm being a burden to everyone and it's been cold and nasty and I've been out in conditions that I would never go out in in Hawaii and I spent this entire last dive trying not to drown and this just wasn't at all what I had wanted it to be. Also, I feel like a really wretched human being because I've been reading Night, which is a tale of Holocaust survival, and, seriously, what kind of a loser am I that I'm crying about the fun I'm not having on my vacation on the Great Barrier Reef?

I did finally pull it together, and we went back upstairs. As we steamed toward Lizard Island, we went through about an hour of serious rocking and rolling on board. I still didn't throw up, but I had to focus pretty hard on where I was and how I was moving. Nausea was just a stone's throw away. Once we got into some calmer waters, we ate dinner then went to bed.

Day 4: We took the tender over to Lizard Island and hiked around there a little bit. Then we met up with our pilots who took us on some teeny tiny little planes along the coast back to Cairns. We spent the night in Cairns, and the next day we flew to Sydney then back to Honolulu.

So, would I recommend this adventure? I would say if you are a diver, this would be a great excursion. The boat was clean, the crew were all very organized and professional. The food was fabulous-we ate 5 times a day, and it was always great. The marine life is amazing, and probably beats a lot of what you will see anywhere else. Also, take your own gear. They have good rental gear available, but if you have some specialized regulator or other gear that you really prefer, the rental stuff just isn't going to cut it. You don't want to have to spend all your time under water thinking about your gear, fighting to get everything adjusted right or just being uncomfortable in something that doesn't quite fit right.

If you are a snorkeler...first of all, if you are as uncomfortable in the water as I am, (and odds are good that you are, otherwise you would already be dive certified)...maybe. I would definitely go in summer, not winter. Eliminate as many comfort-limiting variables as possible. Also, know that choppy water is the norm. Apparently all the glassy water that you see in publicity shots is only around for a couple of weeks a year. If you have gear that you are comfortable with, take it. I think the snorkels they have on board are pretty good, but my dry snorkel is way drier than theirs, and I think I would have had a much better experience if I'd had it with me. Also, take another equally lame snorkeler with you so that you have a default snorkel buddy. I was the only snorkeler, and each morning the trip director would post a schedule of all the dives and which crew was scheduled for what task during each dive. Each dive had divers scheduled, but nobody was scheduled to snorkel, so if I wanted to snorkel, I had to basically pull somebody out of rotation to snorkel with me. The end result of this is that somebody who was initially planning on only having to be in the water twice one day would unexpectedly end up doing 3 shifts in the water. Want to become the popular girl on board? Make everyone work an extra shift each day. That'll do it. While the crew were always very friendly and professional with me, I'm sure this was not anything they were excited about, and it probably threw off their schedule for other duties as well. This was part of the problem with me missing out on the cod feeding. Nobody was prepared ahead of time to go out with me, and so everyone was scrambling at the last minute to figure out who would or could go. I think this is a scheduling problem that the ship could address by simply scheduling a snorkeler for each dive. That way somebody is on tap to go, and if nobody goes out snorkeling, then the crew gets an unexpected shift off rather than an unexpected shift in the water, which I think would be a more welcome surprise. If you do find yourself the lone snorkeler on a dive cruise, mention this to the trip director and let them know before each dive that you plan on participating. Also, if you are uncomfortable in the water like I am, do your best to make this clear. I told my trip director at the beginning that I was not terribly comfortable in the water before our first outing, and he cheerily assured me that after I got back into the water and got accustomed to my gear I would get more comfortable. He did not understand that if 7 years of snorkeling off-shore in Hawaii had not gotten me comfortable in the water, 3 days on a boat in the middle of the ocean was probably not going to do it. I think this is a hard thing for people who are comfortable in the water to understand, and I haven't found a good way to convey it. In the end, I'm glad I went-how many people get the opportunity to dive (or snorkel) the Great Barrier Reef, right? I don't know if it's something that I will ever do again though.

2 days ago, we drove up to Three Tables, a popular area on the North Shore. It was sunny, the water was flat, and it was beautiful. I could walk in, the water was warm, I saw tons of fish and I only thought I might die once. I was so happy-it was everything that I had wanted the Great Barrier Reef to be! The more I leave Hawaii and come back the more I feel like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz-there's no place like home!

Cairns...gateway to the Great Barrier Reef

After our stay in Newcastle, we took the train back down to Sydney and then flew from Sydney to Cairns (pronounced Cans) because this was a far better option than flying from Newcastle to Cairns via Melbourne. For those of you not familiar with Australian geography and too lazy to go look at a map, this would be the rough equivalent of flying from Los Angeles to Portland, OR via Albuquerque. For those of you not familiar enough with U.S. geography for this to mean anything, you should be ashamed. Go find a freakin' map and learn some things. If you are not from the U.S., you can ignore the implied exasperation.

In Cairns we stayed at an out-of-the-way little place called the Cairns Queen Court Accommodation. By out-of-the-way I mean not in the heart of downtown and also not anyplace I ever would have booked on my own. However, if all you need is a cheap place to overnight, this is a fine facility for that. The rooms were spartan-anyone who is familiar with military recreational facilities will have a good idea of what to expect from this property. Their web site shows a swanky studio room and foyer, but I'm not sure what those are all about. The studio room may just be a much higher grade room than what we had, but the foyer pictured is definitely not the area that we checked into.

Our room was similar to the standard room pictured here. We had a "family room" which consists of 2 adjoining rooms, one of which has a bathroom with a double bed and one of which has 2 twin beds and no bathroom. There are communal bathrooms down the hall if sharing with your traveling companions doesn't quite work for you. We stayed there on 2 separate nights, and one time our shower had a "ledge" to keep the water from running out all over the bathroom floor; the other time it didn't. Neither set up is particularly effective at keeping the bathroom floor dry. That said, the rooms were clean, the staff was extremely friendly, and the food at the restaurant was quite good. Also, they have a lovely little pool-side area where you can hang out and read, drink some wine, or just relax. So, all said and done, if you are on a budget and just want a clean no-frills place to stay, I would totally recommend the Cairns Queen Court Accommodation. If you do decide to stay there, be forewarded: there were no elevators. If we hadn't been toting around 7 bottles of wine, this wouldn't have been as big a deal, but it's one of those little things that, if you're not prepared for it at the end of a long day (or week or month) of traveling, can bring you to tears.

Another reason that I would recommend this place is that you can store your luggage here. We were limited in the amount of luggage that we were allowed to take on our dive boat since we would be returning to Cairns on a small commuter plane, so it was nice to not have to worry about what to do with our luggage while we were on the ship.

The Cairns town center is about a 10-15 minute walk from the hotel. There's a nice esplanade where you can walk along the sea shore, but signs warn you not to play near the water because of the crocodiles! Across from the esplanade are all the hotels, hostels, and tourist shops. One place I would like to mention before I move onto our Great Barrier Reef experience is a little ice cream store called Movenpick. Despite our hellacious experience as Cold Stone Creamery franchisees, we still like ice cream. This baffles some people, but it isn't the ice cream's fault that we had a terrible experience; I guess this might be the entrepreneurial equivalent of hate the sin, love the sinner? Anyway, we stopped at Movenpick, and their ice cream is fabulous! They have a bunch of different flavors, and we chatted with the owners, who still had that glazed, new-owner look, and they confirmed that they'd only been doing this for about 3 weeks. They seemed like nice people, and I hope they have a better experience than we did, so if you are in Cairns and a hankering for ice cream hits you, stop in and try some Movenpick. Sorry I can't give you any good directions, but I'm sure if you ask, someone there could tell you.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Pokolbin-Wine Tour!

From Newcastle we took the jail bus to the Hunter Valley Gardens in Pokolbin where our wine tour was scheduled to begin. When I say "the jail bus" I mean the bus where everybody on the bus who wasn't us had to get off half way through to switch to the actual jail bus which, I presume, takes you to the jail so that you can visit your incarcerated loved ones.
Once we got to the Gardens, we walked across the street to meet up with Annette, who runs the horse-drawn carriage tours at Pokolbin Horse Coaches, and Clyde, the clydesdale who would be pulling us around that day. Clyde was adorable; he knew exactly where to go at each winery. He had a favorite tree or post or whatever that he would sidle up to and then stop, waiting for Annette to get out and tie him up. Annette is bubbly and enthusiastic and totally loves what she's doing. We were lucky enough to have arranged a private tour, but they also do larger tours, up to 10 people at a time I believe. So, we started out our tour at Tamburlaine, an organic winery which had a nice Verdelho. Wine connoisseurs, you should probably stop right here because you are going to get no useful information out of this. I can't tell you what year anything was unless I have the bottle in front of me. I can't tell you if anything was fruity or oaky or well-aged or robust. I can tell you that I drank wine, I liked it, and we bought some, and that's about it. I CAN tell you that the Verdelho that I tried at Tamburlaine tasted like grapes. That's not as dumb as it sounds. What I mean is it was kind of dry up front but after you swallowed it, it was very clean and refreshing and it tasted like you had just eaten a white grape. Unfortunately we did not buy any of the Verdelho here because we had just gotten started and I did not yet realize that that was going to be the one I would want to go back to later. We did buy their 2005 Late Harvest Riesling though.

Next we went to Polkobin Estate where we tried everything they offered us. We also gorged next door at the Olive Centre where they have samples of all their olives, olive oils, tapenades, vinegars, and various other yummy condiments available for sampling. I probably ate about 5 slices of bread one sample-sized chunk at a time trying to taste everything. I wasn't trying to be greedy, I was trying to avoid drunken nonsense later in the day. But back to the wine...we bought a 2004 Semillon and a George's Tawny Port which, interestingly, doesn't have a year on it. I think we also bought a Semillon Viognier here as well, but we already drank it so I can neither confirm nor deny this information at this time.
Our last stop was at Meerea Park where we bought 4 bottles of wine, for a total of 8 for the day! In our defense, 2 of them were gifts. Also in our defense, we'd had a lot of wine by then. We bought ourselves a 2007 Verdelho and one The Aunt's Shiraz which we already drank, so I can't tell you the year, but it was great!

We had a wonderful time, and I highly recommend touring the Hunter Valley with Annette and Clyde if you get the chance. If they are booked, there are other operators you could try, but I can't vouch for any of them. You don't get to hit as many wineries when you're traveling by horse, especially if you have to make it back to the Gardens in time to catch the jail bus back to Newcastle; but it's so much nicer than being stuck on a bus with a bunch of drunkards you don't know, like the crowd on the Pub Crawl Bus that passed us on the highway when we were headed back to Newcastle. Our bus driver looked over, shook his head and said, "You couldn't pay me enough!"

On the way back to Newcastle, we were with the same folks that were on the bus with us in the morning. Apparently there is only one jail bus per day. We bitch about a lot of things, but when you're sitting on a bus with $300-$500 worth of wine in a box (there was a third person in our party; it wasn't ALL ours) and everyone else on the bus has just come back from visiting their loved ones in jail, it kind of puts things in perspective.